Rabbi David Walk
It's been pointed out many times (including in these articles) that there is a great irony in the naming of Torah readings in the book of Genesis. The two readings that are the most death intensive have the term life in their names. Parshat Chaye Sarah or The Lives of Sarah focuses on the death of our matriarch Sarah (and contains the death of Avraham and Yishmael, to boot), and the dominant theme this week is the passing away of Ya'akov, nevertheless its title translates as 'and he lived.' Obviously, this is on purpose. One could say that this is a form of Rabbinic euphemism. We'd rather not mention death so we refer to their life. Sort of like a clergyman in a eulogy declaring that we're not mourning a death, rather we're celebrating a life. Well, maybe, but I think that we can discover a better reason for this naming process.
The name of this week's parsha seems in consonance with a famous Talmudic statement quoted by Rashi (1035-1104). Commenting on the verse, "And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered up his feet to the bed and expired, and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 49:33), Rashi says, "It does not say of him that he died, and our Sages have said that Jacob our father did not die [Ta'anit 5b]." The passage alluded to in the Talmudic tractate of Ta'anit, records a discussion between a scholar from
This answer makes sense on a number of levels. Biologically, if my DNA is still out there, so am I. When you look at the promises given to the Patriarchs, the assurances were always for you and your seed after you. If seed doesn't refer to genetic material then I have no clue what it means. However, I think that this is only noteworthy when the recipients of these genes are aware of this legacy. For example, something like 8% of all males in central
I think that there is another way of looking at the eternity of Ya'akov. It's curious and unexpected that the verse which discusses the embalmment and burial preparations of our great ancestor refers to him as Yisrael (Genesis 50:2). Although there are great debates about when we use the name Ya'akov and when he is called Yisrael, generally we assume that physical activities require his original name and spiritual endeavors necessitate his adoptive name. However, what is more physical than the preservation of one's earthly remains? Add to this the fact that the famous Talmudic quote about this Patriarch surviving forever refers to him as Ya'akov. Therefore I believe that we can discover a new approach to the understanding of the point of the Gemara in Ta'anit by following this lead.
The name Yisrael is triumphant and confident; the appellation Ya'akov describes turmoil and doubt. He is called Yisrael when he emerges whole from a difficulty; he is referenced as Ya'akov while he wanders in perplexity through life's tribulations. So, what is Rabbi Yitzchak teaching in his dictum that Ya'kov never died? Perhaps, he's informing us of a point made in 1977 by the great Austrian-American psychologist Bruno Bettleheim (and, of course, Jewish, I mean we are talking about a psychologist): Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it…only by struggling against what seems like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of existence (The Uses of Enchantment).
Perhaps, Rabbi Yitzchak in the name of Rabbi Yochanan is teaching us something much more important than a mystical triviality. He's teaching us the meaning of life. We all know that the Yisrael aspect of our ancestor lives on. After all, we are called the Children of Yisrael and long for our homeland of that name. But we might forget that the Ya'akov nature of our Patriarch continues in us all, as well. This teaches us that life's struggles are as significant as life's triumphs. To live is to struggle. Long live the struggle and long live our beloved Alter Zeidie, Ya'akov Avinu.
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